I thought that this post would be the ideal way to brush the proverbial dust from Fluid Imaginings. What better way to remedy silence than with some thoughts on my recent writing experiences?
A scribe from a 1533 book of hours (Wikimedia Commons)
Academics are motivated by a wide range of loves. Research, teaching, conferences, social causes, to name but a few. I also love those things, but writing is the thing I love the most. When I am writing, the world recedes and I am alone with the words. Unlike some, I love editing with equal passion. My favourite part of my PhD experience was actually the periods of prolonged editing. In my life after research, my interest in editing—strengthened by time as an editorial assistant during my PhD—has blossomed into the beginnings of a career, should I choose it. As a house editor for a legal publishing company, I have unabashedly indulged my love of editing. I even like the law, to a certain extent.
In the months since the completion of my doctorate, I have been surrounded by words. Unlike the time of my doctorate, the words are not my own. I swim in a sea of other people’s thoughts, shaping them into something new. It is rewarding. And yet, I lost myself in the process, developed a severe block to my own ability to compose. I made excuses to myself as to why I did not feel like writing. I took a break, and yet the break would have broken me. I felt refreshed in many ways after years of research-based anxiety, but learned how fundamentally connected I am to the experience of writing. Without my own words, my own voice, I am less.
In the complex liminal space beyond doctoral study, I gained many things. My life is, to my mind, objectively superior in many ways to what it was when I set out on the path to a PhD. I am happy. And yet without writing, I can never reach my potential. I rely on the flow of words to articulate myself to myself, and to the world. The contagion spread into other aspects of my writing life. I no longer felt able to write lists, to compose my thoughts on paper. I felt unable to write blog posts. I even lost interest in writing on social media, despite reading as much as ever. Without words, a silence grows within. After a while, it eats at your self-worth.
The change came when I started to make use of the spaces between. It is easy to make work for oneself, to crowd out the time that it takes to write. The writing instinct, like a muscle, is prone to atrophy. When I started to fill my spare time—my commuting time, for a start—with writing, it was like a dam bursting within my mind, cleansing the vista of my inner landscape with new vitality. One word becomes ten, ten become one hundred. I never thought that a time would come when I could not write, and yet it can happen to us all. To my mind, the issue for me was that I knew how to write when I was completing my PhD, but was not prepared for what comes next.
Some move straight from PhD to research job, but my path has taken me through a valley that diverges from the academic path. In this quiet space, the hubbub of scholarship grows faint. I have learned a much broader skill set than I ever thought possible, and yet I felt that in doing so I had lost my first intellectual love, the labour of creating and crafting one’s own words. Moving away from the sounds of daily academic life is peaceful, but also desolate. I cannot explain this in logical terms, for it happened on a level beyond intellection. As I grew in other areas and began to see the course of my life stretch before me, I neglected to write. Prior to this point, this had been impossible. Too many pressing deadlines. More opportunities to write than time to write in. I resented writing on occasion, worried.
I now feel a new balance, and it warms me. I am richer in so many ways—in love, in life, in experience—than I was at the start of this journey. I set out on a quest to add a lifetime habit of writing to this wealth. Whatever I become, I will be a writer. I will be a scholar, no matter my career. I will not allow myself to leave my words behind. Without words, I feel like an empty vessel. Words pour into the mind, disrupt it, change it. Only penning (or typing) words of my own can shape my destiny. Humanities scholars know this better than most. We must be unafraid and in love with our pens if we are to change the destiny of our world. Even if we are not within the traditional university, the lexical habits of our training will always fill life with meaning. I only truly understood this lesson by temporarily forgetting it. Hardly a road to Damascus moment, but something small and precious.